Report: Drilling spills down in 2016

Oil and gas companies reported fewer toxic spills in New Mexico last year than in 2015. According to the Center for Western Priorities’ 2016 Spill Tracker, companies reported 1,310 spills in 2016. Most of those occurred in Lea and Eddy counties, the site of most drilling activity in the state. The nonpartisan group’s Spill Tracker is based on publicly-available records from New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division, which is within the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. According to the Spill Tracker, five companies were responsible for nearly 40 percent of all spills of crude oil, natural gas and produced water.

Rio Grande water managers freed up from some ESA constraints

Even before this week’s storm, the Rio Grande was ripping through its channel. Winter storms had packed the mountains with snow, and warm March temperatures sent snowmelt down the river. “The snowmelt is coming earlier than we’d like, but if there’s enough snow up there, it may just continue, and it may just be a great year,” said Carolyn Donnelly, head of water operations for the Albuquerque Area Office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. That agency is responsible for operating most of the dams and reservoirs on the Rio Grande and making sure water gets to downstream cities and farmers. For the first time in more than nearly 15 years, the agency and its partners won’t have to hustle to make sure the Albuquerque stretch of the river doesn’t dry during the heat of the summer.

Around NM: Wind, oil, public lands, climate and more

Happy Birthday to the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. Last Saturday, the 242,000-acre monument near Taos turned four. Managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the monument includes the Rio Grande Gorge, protecting that stretch of the Rio Grande as a Wild and Scenic River, as well as lands that stretch all the way to the Colorado border. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, monuments like this one help the local economy:
Designation of Río Grande del Norte bolstered that economic advance. After the monument’s first year, the Bureau of Land Management’s Taos Field Office reported a 40 percent increase in visitors to the area.

Vulnerable to climate change, New Mexicans understand its risks

Most New Mexicans know climate change is happening and understand it is human-caused. According to recently-released data, New Mexicans are also more likely than people in about half the country to talk not just about the weather, but climate. This week, The New York Times published six maps showing how adult Americans think about climate change and regulations on carbon emissions. The maps were based on data from researchers at Yale University. According to their nationwide survey, 70 percent of Americans think global warming is happening.

Martinez orders state hiring freeze to save money

Gov. Susana Martinez announced a hiring freeze Thursday, which goes into effect Saturday. The move, announced in a two-page memo to cabinet secretaries from State Personnel Director Justin Najaka, comes as Martinez indicated she will not sign the budget passed by legislators. “It is critical that Executive agencies take immediate action to control spending as we continue to refine the financial impact on state operations due to unprecedented budgetary challenges the State is currently experiencing,” Najaka wrote. Some positions will be exempted from the freeze, according to the memo, including wildland firefighters at the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, law enforcement officers and forensic scientists at the Department of Public Safety, tax collectors and auditors at the Taxation and Revenue Department and highway workers at the Department of Transportation. Related: NM’s revenue still hasn’t recovered from pre-recession high

The order asks secretaries to cease recruitment for all other positions not listed in the memo and to notify applicants by March 31, 2017 that the advertisements have been closed.

Meet the new Trump staffers in charge of tribal, land, water and wildlife issues

When speaking to a congressional committee more than two decades ago about a bill that would have made sweeping changes to the federal Endangered Species Act, Kathleen Benedetto said the landmark 1973 law was flawed for not taking “into consideration that extinctions are part of that natural process.”

“If you look at the geological record, you can see throughout time that extinctions occurred,” Benedetto said in the 1995 House Committee on Natural Resources hearing. “We’re all aware that the dinosaurs were here for millions of years, and they’re not here any longer, and they disappeared long before man ever emerged as a species.”

Related: Bill would terminate BLM, Forest Service law enforcement

Benedetto co-founded the Women’s Mining Coalition and spoke on behalf of Grassroots ESA Coalition, an anti-regulation group aligned with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Now, Benedetto is one of the new special assistants to Ryan Zinke, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior. She’s reportedly in the Bureau of Land Management after working on Donald Trump’s transition team and as a Republican legislative staffer for the House Natural Resources Committee. As a GS-15 employee she’ll be earning between $101,630-$132,122 per year.

Around NM: Springtime highs, Water Project Fund, dropping oil prices and more

Happy First Day of Spring! It’s hot out there. Record hot, in fact. On Sunday, the Albuquerque Sunport hit 80 degrees—making it the 3rd earliest 80-degree day for that location’s recorded history. This morning, the National Weather Service office in Albuquerque said those above normal high temperatures will continue in central and eastern New Mexico—and that the winds will return, too.

Chaco memorial hits at deeper issues

Saturday night, freshman state Rep. Derrick Lente watched one of his first initiatives turn into a showdown on the House floor. Earlier in the session, Lente’s memorial to protect cultural and historical sites near Chaco Canyon received bipartisan support and passed through the House State Government, Indian and Veterans’ Affairs Committee unanimously. Something changed, though. By the time it reached the House floor, the Democrat’s memorial had triggered uncertainty and skepticism from Republicans. That’s because there was an elephant lurking in the room, said Lente, who is from the Pueblo of Sandia.

Bill for oversight of Gila diversion project dies in committee

A bill related to the proposed diversion on the Gila River has effectively died. The Senate Finance Committee tabled the bill Monday night and asked the bill’s supporters and opponents to resolve the issues on their own, without changing the law. Sens. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, and Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, introduced Senate Bill 340, which would have required additional oversight of the federal money New Mexico receives to plan and build the diversion. Had the bill passed, the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC) would have been required to answer specific questions before paying out more money for attorneys, engineers and consultants.

Oil and gas penalty bill passes committee

Monday night, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill to restore the state Oil Conservation Division’s ability to penalize oil and gas companies that pollute water. If passed by the Legislature, Senate Bill 307 would also increase those penalties, which haven’t been updated since the Oil and Gas Act of 1935. Related story: Bill to bring back oil and gas pollution penalty moves forward

The committee passed the bill by a vote of 6-3, with Republican Sen. Ron Griggs, Alamogordo, joining Democrats in voting to advance the bill. Like when the bill moved through the Senate Conservation Committee earlier in the session, during last night’s meeting, environmental groups stood in support of the bill while energy lobbyists opposed it. This time, however, representatives from the Oil Conservation Division attended the meeting, answering a question raised by a committee member and speaking in support of the bill.